Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article that previously appeared on the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence website.
Whether men or women, all clergy struggle with such issues as long hours, church conflict and isolation. But for women clergy, the challenges of pastoral ministry -- especially the isolation -- are compounded and intensified. Because women are only a small percentage of parish clergy (about 8 percent of congregations are led by women, according to the National Congregations Study) they typically have a difficult time finding female colleagues and mentors. Within denominations, women pastors are usually scattered geographically. While male pastors can be a valued source of support, most women pastors yearn for a “sister” pastor who knows and understands the unique challenges of women in ministry.
As a woman pastor, I have been blessed to experience and to be sustained by the ministry that women can provide to other women. In 2003, I was chosen to be part of Women Touched By Grace, a Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program conducted by the Benedict Inn Retreat & Conference Center in Beech Grove, Ind. Twice a year, for three and a half years, the program brought together 30 clergy women from across the United States and Canada for 10-day sessions focused on building community, parish leadership, spiritual direction and prayer disciplines.
Elizabeth and Mary
It’s not a new thing, this notion of women in ministry supporting one another. Mary, the mother of our Lord, turned to her older cousin Elizabeth for affirmation and support in her unique calling. Both women came to know themselves as women touched by grace. Indeed, that became their identity. The angel even addressed Mary saying, “Hail, full of grace,” instead of calling her by name.
At each session of our program, we deepened that same identity within ourselves. At one gathering, as we entered the chapel, we found a sign that read “The meditation today will be delivered by a Woman Touched By Grace.” Every day, each of us said a prayer that was written for us:
As women touched by your grace, we stand before you, open vessels. Fill us with joy and compassion, with fidelity and faith, with love and all good things to the point of overflowing. May others who thirst come to us for refreshment and in us, find you. Make us worthy bearers of your word and stewards of your gifts so that, in all things, you alone may be glorified. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our brother and savior.
We also had a song, “Touched by Grace,” that was composed for us. The refrain went: “Touched by grace, we are women touched by grace, from the hand of God, from the heart of God, who sends us forth, who sends us forth to serve.” At our final gathering, each of us was presented with a silver bracelet engraved with the words “I am a woman touched by grace.” Powerful reminders of our identity as called women pastors, the prayer, the song and the bracelet sustain us still.
As a woman who had already experienced many of the same things her young cousin was going through, Elizabeth ministered to Mary in the ways that women have long ministered to other women: gathering, passing on wisdom and praying together. The women with whom we gathered and prayed and from whom we received wisdom were Catholic women religious, members of the Sisters of St. Benedict. Denied the opportunity to lead worship and to preach, they made us realize how privileged we are to be bearers of God’s word. Having built, administered and led their own faith communities for more years than all the Protestant denominations combined have been ordaining women, these Catholic sisters were a rich source of wisdom.
‘Sing out a song of the soul’
The sisters of Our Lady of Grace were models for us of seeking God and persevering in all circumstances. Each time, we were welcomed back like family arriving for a reunion. Until the last person arrived from the airport, we were not complete. When we gathered for the third time, a pastor who had recently been diagnosed with cancer was unable to stay for the entire 10 days. Before she left, we gathered around her to offer prayers for healing. We lit a long-burning candle and put it at her place at the table after she left. When we took the group picture, we put her candle in front of us. A year later, when we gathered for our fifth session, another pastor had been diagnosed with cancer and could not attend. We kept a candle burning for her as well and made a video so that she could share vicariously in the community.
At the end of each session, a covenant group took its turn conducting a closing blessing. Once, we anointed each pastor with oil and a spoken blessing. Another time, the covenant group read John 13 and then led us in a ceremony of footwashing, an act that deepened our intimacy. These were women whose names were safe on our lips and whose sacred stories were carried in our hearts. When we each knelt to wash the feet of the person next to us, we all knew who had been touched inappropriately as a child. We knew who had not been touched for many weeks as a newborn baby. And we knew who longed to be touched as a person living alone. We had taken the risk to reveal ourselves and to be known to each other, and now we risked knowing each other by touching and being touched.
Once, a covenant group gave us a parting gift to use in our daily prayer at home. They adapted the Catholic rosary to Protestant practice. Handmade by the group members, each bead on the rosary featured a symbol representing one of the 30 women. Around the rosary, the beads were strung together in groups of five, with each cluster representing a covenant group. The beads hanging from the end represented members of the program staff. Scattered now about the country, and separated by great spans of time, we touch the beads in turn, holding each absent sister in prayer.
At our fifth session of the program, a woman pastor who had been elected to a leadership position in her denomination joined us for worship. She was experiencing considerable conflict in her new position. After worship, we gathered around her, laying on hands and praying. As we encircled her, we sang several songs, the words enveloping and soothing her like a healing balm:
“Sing out a song of the soul ...” ;
“Do not be afraid, I am with you … ” ; and
“We are a gentle angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives.”
For us, singing had become another way of praying. During our sessions, we gathered daily with the sisters and chanted the psalms, singing antiphonally back and forth to each other across the chapel. As women pastors, we had to learn to blend our voices in community. Inclined to sing boldly, letting our individual voices stand out, we had to work to unite our voices just as we united our prayers.
Support in transitions
From the outset, Women Touched By Grace took us in directions we could not have imagined. Two years into the program, four of the 30 -- myself included -- found ourselves out of parish ministry, at least temporarily. In the seven years since the program’s inception, two have retired, one has left parish ministry to serve as a missionary in Africa, and one is wrestling with the difficult decision whether to leave ministry altogether. All of us made it past the critical five-year threshold, when significant numbers of new pastors decide to leave. Yet we all continue to struggle with the issues that face women in ministry.
Numerous studies as well as anecdotal accounts attest to the challenges that face women pastors. My own experience reflects this: After being out of my first call for a year and a half and interviewing for eight different calls, I took a non-stipendiary position that lasted for two years. In the last year and a half, I have switched denominations and taken another non-stipendiary position, which allows me to preach regularly while maintaining a spiritual direction practice at my church. More than 10 percent of our group has served in an interim capacity when a full-time call was not forthcoming.
Underlying the statistics, however, are the horror stories that clergy women share in their national and regional gatherings. Again and again, I have heard stories of harassment, intimidation and abuse of clergy women -- but also stories of women who stay, persevere and maintain long and successful ministries. A startling 20 percent of our group has been forced out of a position since we began our journey together. Another 20 percent has served in a viable long-term pastorate. For women clergy, sustaining pastoral excellence is not only about spiritual practices and leadership skills. It is also about retaining gifted women pastors for whom ministry is all too often an ordeal of grace under fire.
Since the program started, 50 percent of our group has changed calls. One of us has planted an innovative church; one has taken a position in worship leadership at the national level of her denomination; one is being sought after as a candidate for bishop. More than just the usual turnover, these changes resulted from the strengthened spiritual leadership we have gained. Our Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program has equipped us to take risks. It has given us the courage to discern and to make needed changes, even if that might mean leaving ministry. We have learned that pastoral excellence requires special support during times of transition, when clergy struggle with issues of call, gifts and identity.
Though our program has ended, we have developed relationships of enduring grace. We continue to stay at each other’s homes when we travel. Several of us have collaborated on workshops for our churches. Seven of us served together as chaplains for a national women’s gathering. One has even conducted a funeral for the relative of another pastor in our group.
We continue to support each other through e-mail list conversations and have initiated a conference call so that we can again hear each other’s voices. Our Lady of Grace continues to offer support through the creative design of a long-distance oblate program that brings us back once a year to continue our growth in Benedictine spirituality. I am one of the nearly half of our group that is participating.
As our program drew to a close, we were already mourning it. We were determined to find a way to continue this program and have worked to generate seed money for a Women Touched By Grace Foundation. We have hosted coffeehouses, conducted online auctions, sold crafts and artwork, and contributed funds from special congregational offerings in the hope that this program can continue. A second Lilly grant allowed another group of 20 women clergy to experience Women Touched By Grace. They have just completed the program.
Bringing together the best Catholic and Protestant traditions of prayer and leadership, this program has now equipped 50 women as spiritual leaders. As women pastors, we have learned that sustaining pastoral excellence means learning to minister to each other in travail and in transition. Rather than focusing on the practice of ministry as “grace under fire,” we have learned instead to focus on our identities as women touched by grace of another kind. We have learned to pray for our sisters. We have learned to sing for our lives.